Russian diplomats rile quiet Canada

Moscow's assurance to pursue drunk driving cases are not enough for many.

A fatal car accident involving an allegedly drunk Russian diplomat has normally sedate Canadians clamoring for a rewrite of the rules on diplomatic immunity.

Moscow has promised to try the culprit under Russian laws, but the case may stumble over very different attitudes toward drinking and driving in the cultures - and legal systems - of the two countries.

It has also galvanized Canadians, with their self-image as a moral force in the global community - Canada is a leader in the international campaign to ban land mines, for instance - to address another injustice.

The incident occurred Saturday as Andrei Knyazev, first secretary of the Russian Embassy in Canada, was driving home after a day of ice fishing, a sport Russian men typically enjoy with copious amounts of vodka. His out-of-control car struck two pedestrians on a sidewalk, killing one woman, a leading labor lawyer, and seriously injuring another.

A second Russian diplomat returning from the fishing expedition, embassy driver Yevgeny Blokhin, was involved in a separate fender-bender just minutes later. Both men claimed diplomatic immunity.

After Moscow refused the Canadian government's demand to waive Mr. Knyazev's immunity, both were expelled and arrived in Russia Tuesday night.

Earlier in the day, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, in an eloquent and moving apology, pledged that Knyazev would be investigated and tried in a Russian court. "We have no intention ... for [Knyazev] to avoid the severity of punishment which he should undergo under law for a thing he has done," Mr. Churkin said. "We are expecting a criminal proceeding."

Under Russian law, Knyazev may be liable for involuntary manslaughter, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison plus three years suspension of driver's license. In Canada, where the charges include criminal negligence causing death, he could have faced 25 years or more. As in the US, legal and social strictures against drunk driving have been ratcheting up for decades.

The case has triggered enormous uproar. Newspaper letter columns, Internet chat rooms, and editorials have been awash with demands that Canada lead the international charge for sweeping changes to the 1961 Vienna Convention, which provides blanket immunity for diplomats serving abroad.

"When you're a diplomat, you're above the law," Canadian security expert Peter Marwitz told the Toronto Globe and Mail, in a typical comment. "It's just not right. It's not morally right."

Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley suggested Ottawa might do just that after the dust has settled. "There's an old saying among lawyers, that hard cases make bad law," said Mr. Manley. "This is something we will want to look at in broader circumstances."

But Russian experts think Canada will change its tune. "Diplomatic immunity is an old custom, and an inalienable attribute of a state's sovereignty," says Igor Kuznetsov, a legal expert at Moscow's Institute of International Relations, which trains Russian diplomats. "That was a very regrettable incident, and Russia is responsible for Knyazev's actions. But it's not a reason to change international law."

Immunity, he notes, is "an ancient custom codified in modern international law that serves all sides alike." According to the US State Department, immunity is designed to ensure diplomats can perform their duties with freedom, independence, and security. It is not a license to commit a crime.

Canada points to Georgi Maharadze, a Georgian diplomat who killed an American girl while driving drunk in Washington in 1997. In that case, Georgia acceded to US demands to lift immunity and Mr. Maharadze was sentenced to 21 years in prison.

The Russian press, for its part, has made much of a 1998 incident involving Douglas Kent, US consul-general in Vladivostok, who critically injured a Russian man while allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol. Mr. Kent invoked immunity, left Russia, and has never been prosecuted.

Mr. Kuznetsov says that in other incidents as well, Russia has always respected diplomatic immunity. "Canadians should remember that what goes around, comes around."

The controversy may be just starting, however. Knyazev remains a free man in Moscow, and Russian legal experts are unsure of how he could be investigated and tried in Moscow over a traffic accident that occurred thousands of miles away in a different legal environment. No one can think of any precedents.

"Drunk driving is not a crime in Russia," says Alexander Gofstein, a Moscow criminal lawyer. "The defendant will be held responsible only for the traffic rules he violated, and his supposed intoxication will be at most an aggravating factor."

Russia has a hard-drinking culture in which driving under the influence is considered a normal, if lamentable, event. The independent Center for Alcohol Policy in Moscow estimates that the average Russian man consumes more than 23 gallons of vodka annually, one of the world's highest rates.

"Our criminal code envisages a citizen being held accountable for crimes committed abroad," says Irina Maraguzova, professor of criminal law at Moscow's Institute of Comparative Legal Studies. "But Russian laws and judicial practices are different from those in Canada.

"I doubt our authorities would like to create the precedent of imprisoning a diplomat," she says. "I think the most [Knyazev] would get in a Russian court is a suspended sentence. It will just look too complex and murky a case to the judge."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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